COMMENTARY: Baltimore City Schools, Throwback to Jim Crow Era

Dr Kasonya WiseSubmitted to the AFRO by Karsonya Wise Whitehead

I have been a Baltimore City resident for close to fifteen years. My husband and I are raising our sons here and teaching them how to navigate city life.

I have worked as a middle school teacher, at one of the most persistently dangerous schools in Baltimore, and I am now a tenured professor at Loyola University Maryland. I am also the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” at WEAA at Morgan State University and like most people in this city, I live and shop and work somewhere between the intersections of the White L and the Black butterfly.

With everything that has happened in this city—from Freddie Gray to the Gun Trace Task Force and the ongoing impact of redlining to the rows of abandoned houses—I believed that I had seen and heard it all when it comes to Baltimore City politics but I was wrong. Every day on my radio show we talk about some of the stories that matter and demand our attention.

Last week, for four days straight, all we could talk about was what was happening within the city schools. We could not understand how a city that spends almost $15,000 per pupil could justify having its students sit in hot, dilapidated buildings for even a half of a day. It felt racist and unfair.

We said it was criminal and that someone should be held responsible. I talked with Dr. Sonja Santelisis, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, and my listeners were dissatisfied with her responses. I shared Governor Larry Hogan’s statements and they were offended by his excuse because while we talked and politicians passed the blame, our children were attending schools and suffering in silence.

I spoke to a mom whose daughter attends Mt. Royal Elementary School and she said that the students in her daughter’s class spent the days crying and coughing because they could not breathe. They were told not to complain and to lay their heads down on the desk.

On the third day of school, a teacher called my show and told me that her and her students felt like they were in hell—in a hot building without water (they ran out of Deer Park after the first day), or air conditioning, or toilet paper (they ran out on the second day). She said that it was so hot that the mice were coming out of the walls, running around, leaving mouse droppings everywhere and scaring the children.

My listeners and I were stunned. Many of us were outraged because we could not understand how a city that is 63 percent Black with a Black mayor, a Black CEO of city schools, and a majority of our elected officials are Black could allow this to happen to our children.

What is most ironic is that historically Baltimore City was one of the few school districts that quickly moved forward to desegregate schools. In September 1954, four months after the Brown v. Board decision was handed down by the United States Supreme Court, the Baltimore City School Board made the decision to begin desegregating pupils and faculty.

This is important to note because the rest of the state wanted to wait for the Supreme Court’s second decree (due to be handed down in 1955). This was the case that legally ended Jim Crow and it was supposed to create equality in the schools.

During the era of Jim Crow it was not unheard of to have Black children sitting in hot classrooms with no regard for their health. It was not unheard of for a system to intentionally work to poorly educate Black children and force them to endure the type of conditions that were designed to break their spirit. It was not unheard of to expect Black parents to quietly complain but publicly comply with the law. It was not unheard of to have overcrowded classrooms, dark and dingy hallways, dust and asbestos, and very few resources and innovative designs.

Desegregation was supposed to fix that. It was supposed to create classrooms environments where our children would be safe, where their genius could be sparked, and where they could be comfortable. It has been 63 years but if you look closely at most of our Baltimore City public schools, it looks as if time has stood still. I know this because I have visited these schools and as a former teacher, I have endured these conditions.

Our children deserve better. They do not deserve ice cold classrooms in the winter and stifling hot classrooms in the fall. They do not deserve lunches that are not nutritious; dust and mouse droppings; unusable water fountains; and bars on their classroom’s windows.

They do not deserve to be chastised and humiliated and made to feel like their lives do not matter. Unfortunately, after four days of talking about what was happening in the classrooms, complaining about it, and demanding answers for it, it was painfully obvious that nothing was going to change for our children any time soon. In 1954, a decision was made to desegregate Baltimore City schools and sixty-three years later, we are back where we started. This system is failing our children. They do not love them and they do not value them.

They do not see their genius and even when they tell us they do (as they do all of the time), the conditions that are children are dealing with tell a different but familiar tale.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Letters to My Black Sons II: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.”

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO.

Send letters to The Afro-American • 1531 S. Edgewood St. Baltimore, MD 21227 or fax to 1-877-570-9297 or e-mail

This article originally appeared in the AFRO-American.

Leave a Reply